Greed and Green Marketing

Although the green movement, which has advanced over the past years, has had some positive impact on our environment, green marketing is a rather contentious part of it. An increased concern for the preservation of our earth has sparked a shift in consumer consciousness. Many individuals are becoming gradually more aware of the background of the products and services that they consume and are growingly demanding goods that reflect a green manufacturing and delivering process. Companies have long been aware of this trend and have switched their marketing strategies to mirror these new demands. Critics, however, point out that some firms choose to put a green spin on their products and services, while the change in their goods to be more environmentally friendly is minimal or non-existent. As consumers are being led astray, corporations are cashing in on their well-strategized advertising campaigns. Green marketing, therefore, is a rather questionable component of the green movement. It begs the questions whether consumption, the very thing that is causing ecological turmoil and destruction, could actually ever help the environment. This essay will argue that many corporations use the new environmental paradigm to sell more products and increase profits, rather than actually preserve our planet.

Within the last century many things have changed in our environment. We see shrinking ice caps, depletion of the world’s ozone layer, increasing numbers of extinct plant and animal species, and an ever-changing and unpredictable weather pattern. Our world is rapidly changing and it is changing for the worse. What has happened within the last century that is causing these changes? Since the end of WW2 our population “has been on an unprecedented consumption binge, consuming more goods and services than the combined total of all humans who ever walked the planet before us (Taylor, and Milford 388). We are simply using more than the planet can give us, and we are consuming it at a faster rate than nature can regenerate. This process leaves an immense amount of by-products and wastes that are repressing our environment. At the same time, whole ecosystems are being destructed and brought out of its natural balance, as species and resources are extracted. Muldoon states that “waste generated as a result of human consumption is currently at its highest point ever and, in 2000, surpassed the earth’s natural capacity to absorb it by 15%” (2). Most of this disaster is stemming out of first world countries, such as Canada and the United States. Taylor and Milford explain that “one fifth of global population living in the highest-income countries account for 86 percent of private consumption expenditures” and that the “poorest fifth account for a little over 1 percent” (392). The speed, at which we purchase goods and use services, and the vast amounts of them that we utilize on a daily basis, is quickly depleting the earth’s fundamental resources. This “binge has been an ecological disaster” (Taylor, and Milford 388), and “we are engaging in the ecological equivalent of running up a very substantial credit-card bill” (Taylor, and Milford 390). This “credit-card bill” is reaching unprecedented amounts and it is unclear whether future generations will be able to pay off all our debt, including all the interest of wasted ecosystems that we are accruing. Therefore, growing concerns over the earth’s natural resources and habitats have sparked an increase in public policies and strategies in order to preserve our world and with it numerous plants, animals and water supplies. This new awareness has had an impact on consumption, more specifically on the types of products that individuals are increasingly purchasing and using. Lee explains that “since the emergence of the green consumerism and ethical consumerism which arose in the mid 1990s, consumers have started to demand a say in the production, processing and resourcing of the products” (575). Companies have been quick to respond to this need, and as any economic player have created a supply for the newly growing demand. Over the last years we have seen a great insurgence of products and services that are labelled ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘green’ and such. Although this change appears to be positive, a closer look may challenge the intentions of consumers and producers alike, which will be discussed in subsequent paragraphs. Having a little bit of background on the reasons behind the emergence of green marketing and green consumption, we will now examine the effects of both, and evaluate whether these are actually having a positive impact on our world and our environment.

First we will take a closer look at the customers of various ‘green’ products and services and examine their role, as well as their intentions. Although on the surface, these individuals appear to have good objectives, a number of researches suggest that “the role of the consumer in driving organizations to be environmentally responsive is currently contentious” (Sandhu, Ozanne, Smallman, and Cullen 356). The problem of any form of consumption is that it creates waste and uses resources, regardless of whether it is produced environmentally friendlily or more neglectfully. The green consumer himself is, therefore, put in a critical light. McCarron explains that “to engage in green consumerism is to accept the social mythology that says that ecological problems are resolvable from within the discourse that has produced them”. It is a rather naive idea. He further on argues that “green consumerism is a sort of compromise practice in which we try to maximize our efforts to be environmentally sensitive, while minimizing the sense of guilt that attends our consumerist activity” (McCarron). Whether it is possible to fight fire with fire is still unclear, as the effects of our current consumption are inconclusive yet. However, a more plausible solution in tackling our environmental problems may be to stop or alter our consumption levels altogether. In a world, in which our increasing population and thus growing consumption levels are unsupportable without having a detrimental effect on our environment, it is questionable whether green products and services are going to save the day. In addition, some research suggests that consumers are not as concerned about the depletion of our planet as is apparent. In a study conducted by Lee with over 6.000 participants, the results are rather shocking. After his analysis Lee found that “social influence was the top predictor of […] adolescents’ green purchasing behaviour, followed by environmental concern as the second, concern for self-image in environmental protection as the third, and perceived environmental responsibility as the fourth top predictor” (573). It is interesting to observe that in this study, individuals cared more about what others thought of them, rather than cared for the environment. Sandhu et al., furthermore, suggest that “despite a significant percentage of consumers [indicate] a preference for green products”, “consumers do not always vote with their money” (357). Overall, consumers seem to be “motivated more by price than by the environmental attributes of products” (Sandhu, Ozanne, Smallman, and Cullen 361). So, we are facing a large dilemma. Although we know that our consumption levels are drastically changing and damaging our environments, we nonetheless appear to be motivated more by the opinions of our peers rather than the potential destruction of our planet. In addition, consumers also worry about prices, and are, therefore, unable to always purchase products that are better for the earth. Thus, it is very difficult to change public opinion to such an extent that we actually start making changes in our consumer behaviour in order to impact our environment positively. McCarron explains that consumerism is “the very foundation upon which our ideas about ourselves have been anchored”. It is a notion that has been engrained in our culture for decades, and it is challenging to bring these customs to a halt. In conclusion, green products and the effects of green marketing on customers, therefore, seem to rather have a very small impact on the actual issues that our ecology is facing.

When we examine the side of the producers and the corporations that offer and produce various green goods, we find a similar picture. Muldoon explains that “production reigns supreme because consumption is beyond scrutiny” (6). A company’s primary goal is to generate revenues and minimize costs, in order to sustain itself and fetch profits for shareholders. Corporations will always serve the consumers’ needs; where there is a demand, corporations will make sure to provide the supply. Lee summarizes a company’s goals by stating that they “will initiate international green marketing in order to expand their market, increase their sales and take advantage of positive image of their green brands” (575). Vos illustrates that “being green has become synonymous with good business” (673). It is simply something that the market is demanding right now, and what firms are trying to mould their public image after. It does not necessarily mean that corporations feel ethically bound to green production and distribution practices. The need for natural products is simply “a marketing opportunity that advertisers have been quick to seize upon” (McCarron). However, this is problematic because green marketing has “removed the idea of nature from its contextual background and placed it in an uneasy alliance with products that are themselves so far removed from the symbolic and mythic ideas associated with nature as to make the juxtaposition all but ludicrous” (McCarron). Many car companies are currently advertising their ‘green’ car models, which are fuel efficient and supposedly friendly to the environment. However, although these vehicles may burn less fuels, it does not change the fact that they nonetheless still are one of the largest group of polluters in our world. It is, therefore, difficult to understand the real motivations of companies, whose main goal is to gain a larger market share.

In addition, the notion of green marketing leads into the problematic concept of ‘green washing’, in which corporations purposefully create an environmentally public image of themselves, while maintaining ecologically disastrous practices in order to maintain low cost levels. Today the world’s biggest greenwashers are the world’s biggest polluters (Vos 685). Some of the most powerful economic players are thus willingly misleading consumers in order to improve their bottom line. There are many examples all throughout our economies that support this notion. Vos recalls the case, in which “BP was lobbying Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, [while] it was participating in a partnership with the National Wildlife Federation to sell stuffed animals of endangered species at gas stations” (677). Muldoon explains that these companies and their mostly successful attempts at misleading the public “often extol a virtuous environmental record, or donate money to green organizations to draw attention away from questionable ecological activities” (7). At other times they “advertise their ‘environmentally friendly’ products or processes, while failing to share that these standards are the minimum required by law” (Muldoon 7). It is challenging for consumers to tell apart, which corporations are actually supporting the environment and which ones are simply just appearing to do so. Going back to the car example, it is evident that any car that runs on fuels is not going to be ‘green’. However, green marketing nowadays is extremely effective because it serves customers with what they want. Greenwashing is nonetheless an unethical practice that misleads consumers and gives them a false sense, in which they feel that they are helping out the environment while buying a certain product or service.

As a consumer society, we fail to acknowledge that our consumption is much out of proportion and extremely unnecessary. In North America we have this perception that bigger is better, and that the more we have, the better life gets. Looking at the rest of the world, which mostly just consumes a small fraction of what we do, it is evident that we are not in need of all the things that we possess. Toby Smith coins the term ‘productivism’, which underlines our ethic of extreme production and consumption; this notion that we constantly have to expand and grow (McCarron). Another problem with green consumption is that “it supports the corporate ideal that places environmental responsibility on the shoulders of the individual” and that “this narrow focus masks larger structures that continue to ensure that wealthy corporations routinely benefit from pollution and the mass extraction of resources” (Muldoon 3). Green marketing gives us the impression that we can save the planet by simply spending more on certain products and services. It is a very well strategized advertising campaign. However, we need to see the real root of the problem, which is consumption itself and not necessarily what companies do or produce. As consumers we carry all the power and all the responsibility to improve the planet’s condition by cutting down our imagined need for all the goods that we buy and use.

In conclusion, the pressing environmental disasters have caused an increased awareness of our ecological destruction, as well as a large shift in the marketing of consumer products in services. As outlined above, these changes do not necessarily represent a true change in the goods themselves, but rather reflect a supply for a growing demand. Nowadays “green corporations are all the rage, and more and more companies are advertising their green stance” (Vos 675). However, this is only due to the fact that customers have enabled this trend. Green marketing is not necessarily evil or untrustworthy. They rather present a small positive change in the right direction. However, as consumers we can’t allow ourselves to be blinded by false pretences, promises and guarantees. We need to be critical of green advertising and curb our consumption in order to support the survival of our environment and many ecosystems. I would like to leave off with a quote that summarizes my essay:

                                There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.

~Mohandas K. Gandhi


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